November 27, 2014

A Vintage Calling

For Tom and Theresa Wajnert, 2007 can't come quickly enough.

"I'd do anything to be able to fast-forward time," says Tom, former CEO of AT&T Capital, founder of Fairview Advisors and a part-time Naples resident. "I'm sure the anticipation will only increase the closer and closer it gets. It's like being an expectant father."

Talk about long gestation periods. The Wajnerts will be waiting another two years before they can give birth to their baby: the first bottle of cabernet sauvignon made from grapes grown in their five-acre California vineyard and bearing their very own label, tentatively called T&T.

"After Tom and Theresa, of course," says Tom. "We might come up with another name for it, I don't know. Mostly, we're just praying that it tastes good."

The dazzling success of the Naples Winter Wine Festival has raised millions of dollars for good causes and made Naples one of the shining stars in the heady firmament of international wine and culinary events. It has also inspired many Neapolitans to speculate, as they let a flinty chardonnay tango across their palates or breathe in the bouquet of a particularly pugnacious pinot noir: "Hey, maybe I could do this. Maybe I could buy some land out west in the wine country, grow some grapes and make my own wine, too."

As dreams go, it's among the more seductive ones-and it has compelled more than one Naples soul to split his or her time between the Gulf Coast and the Grape Coast. Some, like Jeff Gargiulo and wife Valerie Boyd, owners of Gargiulo Vineyards in Oakville, Calif., brought an agricultural pedigree to the quest. Others, like Ken and Grace Evenstad, founders of the acclaimed Domaine Serene Vineyards and Winery in Oregon, leapt headlong into the fruity fray with no prior wine industry experience. And then there are those like the Wajnerts, who started small and are inching toward that day when the bounty of their labor can be lovingly uncorked.

For those anxious to join in the good times by owning a vineyard estate, there's good news and bad news. First, the bad: California is in the midst of an ongoing grape glut, with the price of chardonnay grapes dropping from an average $3,000 a ton to $1,500. In 2003, an estimated 60,000 tons of different varietals were left to rot in vineyards, which is probably just as well, since millions of gallons from the 2002 and 2001 vintages were already sitting unwanted in tanks. That means newbie vineyard owners shouldn't count on offsetting their mortgages by selling the bounty of their harvests.

Now the good news: Despite the soft-as-pudding grape market, vineyard values have gone up more than 100 percent every decade over the past 50 years-even in the worst of times-making them a historically solid real estate investment. For example, in 1992 there were more bankruptcies and foreclosures in the California wine country than during Prohibition, yet by 1999, prices in Napa Valley were up 123 percent for the decade. An acre of prime Napa real estate that as recently as 1990 went for $41,500 is now selling for $150,000 and up.

"Land prices have gotten so high that, as a business model, newcomers really can't cashflow the expense versus what they can make growing grapes and making wine," says Jeff Gargiulo, president of California-based Sunkist Growers, whose family has been farming for more than a hundred years, including several decades in Southwest Florida. "When wine lovers tell me that they want to do what I'm doing, I tell them it's a lot cheaper to go out and buy all the wine you've ever dreamed of than it is to buy and maintain a vineyard."

The Gargiulos bought their Oakville vineyard in 1992, and almost immediately discovered that it was plagued with philoxera, a root parasite that can devastate entire vineyards. They replanted with a mixture of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese and pinot noir, and had their first crushes in 1998 and initial bottlings in 2000 and 2001. The acclaim was quick to follow. A barrel of Gargiulo Vineyards merlot won the top bid of $10,000 at the prestigious 2003 Napa Valley Wine Auction. And the October 2004 issue of Food & Wine magazine named theirs one of the 20 best new wineries in the world.

The Gargiulos have added to their Napa holdings and now have about 50 acres under production at two different sites. Their daughter, April, has joined them as director of sales and marketing. And they are building a new facility to expand their tastings.

"Essentially, we spend every spare minute of our time attending to the vineyards and the wine, whether it's in the agricultural component or in the finished product, comparing it to the competition," says Gargiulo. "It's a great lifestyle. But it is a major commitment. And it is agriculture, so there are always unforeseen risks and costs."

Ken and Grace Evenstad know all about that. The couple first talked about buying a vineyard in 1969, but Ken Evenstad's career as founder, chairman and CEO of Upsher-Smith Laboratories, a Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company, occupied too much of his time. And Grace was busy with a newborn child.

"We kept saying, 'Maybe someday.' Then finally, in 1989, I looked at Ken and said, 'Honey, if we don't do it now, our someday will never happen,'" says Grace.

Two weeks later, they had purchased 142 acres in Oregon's North Willamette Valley. The Evenstads immediately discovered the vagaries of the business when they started getting the land ready for planting the pinot noir grapes for which the region is now acclaimed.

"The property had been logged, and it was riddled with stumps," says Grace. "It cost us more to clear the land than it did to buy it."

But the payoff came when Robert Parker, probably the world's most influential wine critic, gave their premier bottling a 90. That might not be tantamount to a perfect score on the SATs, but it certainly placed the Evenstads among a rarefied group.

"From there, we were off and running," says Grace.

Since their first vintage, the Evenstads have expanded their holdings; they now own three vineyard estates totaling 320 acres, and are producing about 10,000 cases a year of pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah. They've also built a state-of-the-art, five-story winery with four underground levels. It works on a gravity method, to cause as little bruising to the fruit as possible. And it attracts vintners from all over the world, anxious to get a glimpse of the Evenstads' innovations.

"Every decision we make is based on achieving the highest degree of quality, and that's expensive. Then there are the unforeseen things-like Mount St. Helens sitting just a hundred miles away, getting ready to blow its top and dump inches of ash all over your vineyard," says Grace. "It's a great way of life, and I love it. Wouldn't trade it for the world. But as far as making any money at it goes-forget about it."

Just getting a foot in the door means having to pay a premium. Even entry-level California vineyards-modest homes with less than 10 acres of grapes-start at around $1.5 million. From there, the sky's the limit. Bellisimo Vineyards in Calistoga, with 153 acres, a dazzling contemporary main house, a two-bedroom guest house and a two-bedroom tennis house, was recently listed with Christie's Great Estates for $21,950,000. And the Vineyards of JJ Cohn Estate, with more than 200 acres in Napa Valley's Rutherford Bench appellation, including a gracious two-story main house, three barns and a caretaker's house, was on the market for $25 million.

"The secret to buying a vineyard that yields the most return on investment is to go with quality. The best grapes will always find a market," says John Bergman, of Bergman Euro-National, a Napa real estate firm that specializes in vineyard estates. "There are always a lot of properties on the market, but the ones with premium grapes are scarce."

Bergman's listings range from an 8.65-acre chardonnay vineyard in the Russian River Valley with an adjoining 2.5-acre estate home site for $1.7 million to a 115-acre property that includes a 3,700-foot airstrip, an eight-unit inn, two-bedroom home and 90 acres of vineyards for $12,950,000. Bergman says his clients fall into two categories: those who are buying a lifestyle and those who are "serious investors wanting to turn a high percentage profit after several years." He counsels all of them that three things control the fate of an income-producing vineyard: Mother Nature, the economy and professional vineyard management.

"The only thing they can really control is the management," says Bergman. "The best thing a novice vineyard owner can do from the outset is to hook up with a vineyard manager or viticulturist who knows the ropes. They can make sure the estate is in prime working order."

Tom and Theresa Wajnert had been talking for years about buying a vineyard, but were spurred into action through their involvement with the Naples Winter Wine Festival. Like the Gargiulos and the Evenstads, they are trustees of the event.

"We met such incredible people through the event-people who are truly connected in the industry-that it made it easier to start narrowing down our choices," says Wajnert.

Still, they faced a dilemma. Tom wanted to buy in Sonoma Valley, and Theresa wanted something in Napa Valley. They wound up with a most serendipitous solution:

"We found a 13-acre property that sits in both. I mean, the county line quite literally runs right through our property," says Wajnert. "And the good thing about it is that the grapes are on the Napa side. That way they can command a much higher price."